CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Dirk Dittmer and his team at UNC School of Medicine are working non-stop Christmas week. They’re trying to understand a new and much more contagious strain of COVID-19.

“We’re waiting really for the experimental data to understand if this virus is better at getting into cells or evading the immune system or what it does. And also, we will be looking at whether the patients in the intensive care units have this particular virus strain or another one we don’t know about,” Dittmer said.

Just how much more contagious is the new strain? Based on mathematical modeling, health experts in the United Kingdom, the location of the large outbreak, said as much as 70 percent.

“So here’s the part that we don’t know. At this point, there’s no evidence to suggest that it is associated with worse disease and they’re just starting to build the experiments to see if it has different properties. There’s a suspicion it might be more infectious,” Dittmer said.

How many new cases of this new strain are there in the U.K.? According the health officials so far, in December, around 60 percent.

Doctors and scientists said people who have already had another strain of COVID-19 probably aren’t susceptible to this new strain. It’s not the first mutation, but is much different than the rest.

“And then it has really a quite handful of additional mutations that sets it up very dramatically from the rest of the viruses that are circulating,” Dittmer said.

Do the current vaccines work on this new strain? Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy said there’s no reason to believe they don’t.

“So far, the vaccine is going to be (as) effective against (this) strain as against all the other strains, and that’s the real benefit of measuring the sequencing of these new strains so that we have a real time check-up on what are the things that are working and not working,” Dittmer added.